Toying with reality in as convoluted a way possible, the film never seems to land on a reality where it's actually satisfying.
James Ward Byrkit’s resume doesn’t do much to explain his first feature. With a smattering of shorts, video game writing, and storyboard artistry as his only experience, it’s understandable why he might choose what would seem the easy route for a first film — hand-held cameras and mostly improvised dialogue — but why he went with an incredibly convoluted, confusing, and theoretically complex story is as mysterious as his film.
In the first of many blurred lines, the characters of Coherence, for the most part, have names that are quite close to those of the actors playing them. Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria) host their friends for a dinner party one evening. Em (Emily Foxler) is the first to show up. She’s in the midst of making a huge decision regarding her future with her boyfriend, Kevin (Maury Sterling), who arrives shortly after she does. Causing some unease is Amir (Alex Manugian, who co-wrote the story) who is bringing with him Laurie (Lauren Maher), who once dated Kevin. Rounding out the group is Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), an enlightened sort of soul, sharing her thoughts on feng shui and bringing with her a homemade tranquilizer of sorts which she offers to her friends, and her partner Hugh (Hugo Armstrong).
Once all assembled the group makes their way through dinner, often talking loudly over one another, having secondary conversations and generally acting like a bunch of actors who are all vying for the spotlight. It’s supposed to seem natural, but ends up feeling a bit chaotic. Luckily, at times Byrkit allows one or two to lead the conversation and the beginnings of a plot emerge. After several of them experience strange cell phone behavior, Em chimes in about a comet passing over the earth. When the power goes out suddenly and the only house in the neighborhood with lights is two blocks up, the real twists begin to emerge. Amir and Hugh offer to check out the lit-up house, taking with them blue glow sticks. The others, tensions rising among their already fragile group, are frightened by a knock on the door by an unknown person. When the two men return with a box and a cut on Hugh’s head, the film starts to expertly set up a complicated story. Inside the box are pictures of each of them, with numbers written on the back, and one of the pictures could only have been taken that evening. More horrifying is that Hugh claims with certainty that what he saw in the house was themselves, in the same place, having the same dinner party.
Questions of time and space begin to emerge, and when Hugh conveniently mentions a theory that might explain their situation (a little quantum mechanics knowledge that his eccentric brother just happened to think may come in handy) he propounds that they may be in a Schrödinger’s cat situation. This theory supporting the idea that within a scenario (the dinner party) there exists several possibilities, and in this case that the comet may be allowing these other possibilities or realities to exist simultaneously, with only one of them emerging once the comet passes. It’s a stretch, but an interesting one. Where the film starts to fall apart is the individual reactions the characters have to this potential explanation. First, that they all seem to accept that this is indeed what’s happening. Second, that they are now somehow in competition with the alternate reality playing out down the street. A plan to sabotage the other group comes into play, though they soon discover there are more complicated details to consider, and when trying to best a group of people who think exactly as you do, it’s a well-matched feat.
The film relies heavily on the paranoia of its characters, which goes a fair distance to keep up tension. Eventually the bad decisions of its characters, and perhaps the fact that there are so many of them to keep track of, makes it hard to care too deeply for them. Em is the clear main character and the only one allowed some real follow-through in her storyline. This situational paradox a heavy lesson just to prove she hesitates too much in making major life decisions.
Even those with a perfunctory understanding of Schrödinger’s cat theory (which includes myself) will wonder at the ending. Likely, any quantum mechanic in the crowd would find it scientifically lacking. Luckily, it is just a theory, but even when loosely applied Byrkit hasn’t filled in the gaps of the show’s science-fiction elements enough to make it ultimately convincing. The film starts off scattered, narrows its focus when the plot picks up enough to piqué real interest, but ultimately loses that interest just as quickly as it loses its viewers’ last threads of comprehension.
Mike (played by Brendon, whom audiences will mostly recognize from the hit television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer) discusses his acting career at one point with Laurie, mentioning that he once starred in the series Roswell. A hint at the character’s alternate reality existence from the onset? Perhaps. The film can get as meta as it wants, and hold out hope that in some parallel reality it balances its indie sci-fi twists to better effect.